The Point of Particularly Personal Personas

October 23, 2013

The Agile software development movement has a concept called user personas. During a project’s spin-up, developers are encouraged to create these personas as representative users. A typical persona may be “Victor the Vice President”.

Victor is a VP at his company. He will use the software for high-level data reporting, but not data entry. On a scale of 1 to 10 in computer skills, Victor is a 4.

All well and good, and I can feel the engineers in the crowd nodding. “All important things to know about a user of the system,” you’re thinking.

Victor drives a BMW. He’s recently divorced and has joint custody of his two children. He’s planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Those hypothetical engineers are looking a little puzzled now. How does the type of car he drives or his marital status relate to how he will use this new system?

Not everyone agrees that user personas need to be this in depth. But I like that level of detail!

In my experience, engineers (myself included!) default into believing that users are simply another part of the system; that they will enter the correct data at the correct time in a startlingly efficient manner. But that’s not what people do! Users aren’t just cogs in the machine. A user is – in fact – a person. An actual person, with a mortgage and a dentist appointment and a pet fish and … well, you get the idea.

I like detailed user personas because they remind us to design with empathy – which is something I hope everyone agrees is a good thing. Our personas may be made up, but the people they represent are very real indeed. And while it may feel silly to give your made-up people names and hobbies and goals, I think the gentle push toward empathy is very well worth it.